Irrigation system design testing with Jacob Rader and Proximity Design.

Designing around the world: an interview with Jacob Rader

Jacob Rader graduated from AC4D in 2015. Since graduating, he has contracted at top design consultancies such as Big Tomorrow, Carbon 12 Creative, frog Design, and Projekt 202. Most recently, he has returned from a stint designing with Proximity Designs, an award winning social enterprise based on Yangon, Myanmar. I sat down with Jacob recently to discuss his varied experiences, and how AC4D has shaped his path.

What spurred you to attend AC4D?

I found AC4D at a time when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had been working as an engineer and wasn’t really satisfied with it. A friend of mine pointed me towards AC4D. What really appealed to me about AC4D was that it seemed like a real opportunity for change; it was short, it had a good structure, and it was affordable.

What did you want to do after?

I wasn’t really sure at first, after graduation I kept working as an engineer while I worked through what I wanted to do. After a few months I started taking contract work and I’ve been doing that ever since. My first contract was with Big Tomorrow — it was a short piece of work that was part of a larger project they were doing for UT. Working in the education space felt like a good fit compared to the work I was doing as an engineer — I went from designing cosmetic bezels and latches for Dell servers to helping to design a content strategy for a new educational program geared towards first time college students.

After Big Tomorrow I was lucky enough to get contract work with some great firms like Carbon12 and Projekt202. I ended my year with a project at frog. Frog was always somewhere I wanted to work, and many of the people that mentored me through my transition into design cut their teeth at frog.

What was your role at frog?

Our team was tasked with reconceptualizing and restructuring the application process that veterans go through when they are applying for benefits online at the VA. The old process that veterans navigated to gain their benefits was bureaucratic and at times frustrating — it was an opportunity to streamline and humanize this process. Our project was a small part of a much larger effort that the VA is going through.

Early this year, after my project with frog, I left and went to work with Proximity Design in Myanmar.

How did the opportunity to work in Myanmar surface?

A friend of mine had been doing work with Proximity and helped connect me with them. With my background in engineering and design combined with my interest in social impact, it was clear that Proximity could be a great fit for me. We started talking last fall, navigating the 12-hour time difference to organize interviews over Skype. After a few months of chatting they offered me a fellowship position, where I’d spend 6 months working with their design team.

What is Proximity Design? And can you elaborate on the social aspects?

Proximity is an NGO, but not like any of the other NGO’s I encountered when I was in Myanmar. They built the company around design — the same principles woven throughout the AC4D program — to create products that serve rural farmers, as a means to improve the economic conditions of the county. They don’t just come in and give products to farmers. They work with farmers, designing products around their needs, and ultimately sell their products to those farmers. If farmers don’t like the products Proximity creates, farmers won’t use them, and so the designs have to match the farmers’ expectations. And that’s a huge shift, especially in the NGO world, where you have a lot of external organizations coming in, bringing outside tools and technology, and prescriptively saying, “Here, this is what I think you need.” Proximity’s approach is, “This is what I think you need, and will you buy it?” And it’s up to the farmers to determine the value.

Design team synthesizing field research.

What project did you focus on while in the field?

One of the products they introduced a while back was a drip irrigation system. At the time there were no motorized pumps in the country, and so they created this really elegant gravity fed irrigation system. Over the last few years, sales in the drip system had started to decline and it was our job to go out and figure out how the landscape had been changing over the last few years and how we needed to improve or change the irrigation systems Proximity was making.

We found that the market had changed quite a bit. In the last few years the country has opened up, and with that openness has come new technologies, including cheap motorized pumps from China and Thailand. All the farmers we were working with, who 10 years ago were manually pumping water or pulling water out of wells with buckets, now had diesel and gasoline pumps. There was this new flow of irrigation technologies like cheap layflat tubing and sprinkler heads that are changing the way farmers are working. Proximity needed a system that was going to leverage these new technologies while staying competitive with cheap products from China.

In the end, we developed a new sprinkler system based off of the components from the existing drip system. Our new system is inexpensive, flexible, and reliable, designed to scale with farmers needs.

The new irrigation system.

What was the most challenging aspect of your experience?

There were all these little moments that had their separate challenges. I was in a new place, I had never traveled or lived abroad before. My first month and a half was hard, being away from home and getting used to a new place. But I think there is a certain confidence that you build when you travel, you build confidence through the experience.

Getting used to a new team, especially one in a different country, was challenging but not as much as I had thought it would be. I think I got lucky with the team. There was a language barrier but once I got used to the cadence of translation it wasn’t really an issue. With any team, once we got to know each other we learned how to work with one another.

The workshop.

What was the most rewarding aspect of your experience?

Getting to work with the guys that I did. My teammates were skilled and incredibly talented in their own ways, and it helped to shift my perspective about what makes a good designer. There were four guys on my team — Tin Tun Aung , Aung Ko Ko, Tayzar, and myself. Tayzar used to drive for the design team, but worked his way into the team as a designer. Tin Tun Aung was a welder on the manufacturing team, and when they noticed how creative he was they hired him onto the design team. Aung Koko’s background was in manufacturing. While none of these guys had formal design training, they had a native ability to create and problem solve. In many ways the qualities that make good design are part of the culture in Myanmar, things like creativity and experimentation. It was super rewarding to work with those guys. It helped me realize that design is not this formal thing that needs to be taught, but a natural process that needs to be facilitated and fostered.

Proximity design team at work.

What do you mean by facilitating?

For me, facilitation means helping to guide the design process. Everyone has things that they’re good at and areas where they struggle. Facilitation is about helping everyone feel comfortable enough to create at their best, and leveraging the skills of the group to create the best outcome.

The guys I worked with were really great at the making side of the process — at creating new things and experimenting to solve a problem. They were also really skilled in research, going out and understanding what our customers needed. Where they struggled was the fuzzy middle part — synthesis and sensemaking, where we try to really understand the things we learned in research in a deeper way. The first time we went through synthesis, it was a disaster. I was trying to recreate what I learned in school and it just wasn’t the right fit. We needed to shift and think about how to do synthesis with this team. We had to reframe it in a way that best fit their ability as designers.

Design isn’t a set of tools. It’s a general approach to problem solving. There are tools we can always fall back on, but each problem, project, and team requires its own unique approach.

How have you grown as a designer?

I feel a lot more confident. It was my first time ever leading a team and I found my confidence through that. Designing a physical product, I got to combine my new design skills with my old engineering skills — after a year of working on digital products, shifting back to a space I’m more comfortable with helped to illuminate how much I’ve learned as a designer.

Can you reflect on what your time at AC4D meant to you?

In terms of the experience, the program is super intensive. Everyone told me how intense it was, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I started AC4D. That rigor forces you to face your limitations.

Like other programs, AC4D gives you a framework to approach problems with a core set of skills and tools. Where AC4D differs is that it builds on that core. It’s more than just technical skill, the program helps you understand your creative process in an deeper way. It takes all those skills and tools and makes them flexible. You learn to be a designer in the real world, not just one in school and it forces you to have a perspective about the work that you do.

To learn more about Jacob’s work, check out his portfolio.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.